The Wisdom of Great Eagle: The Lesson of the Stubborn Elm

Presented here is a retelling of a Cherokee folktale called “The Lesson of the Elm Tree.”  It was told by a boy named James Ariga who was part Cherokee in 1947 at the Ten Mile River Scout Reservation and included in the, Treasury of American Indian Tales, by Theodore Whitson Ressler.

The Lesson of the Elm Tree

There was once a young boy of about eleven years of age named White Eagle who lived with his mother and father.  They were of the Cherokee people who lived in the Appalachian Mountains on the shores of a large lake.  In those days there was much talk of war and there were frequent skirmishes between his people and the different people who lived outside Cherokee territory.  His father’s name was Great Eagle and was a great and fearless warrior.  He was much respected and honored among his people not just for his bravery in battle but for his wisdom and nobility of spirit.

The Cherokees usually did not need to go far afield to catch game but there came a time there was little to be had close to home.  Therefore, Great Eagle led a hunting party north beyond Cherokee territory into the lands of the northern people.  He knew there would be fighting if the northerners discovered them but luckily they were quickly successful in the hunt and headed home without encountering any problems.  However, before they left the northern lands they came across a young boy wandering in the wilds alone who was clearly lost and famished. 

Great Eagle gave him food and contemplated what he should do with him.  He thought about his own son who was of similar age and did not like to think of him lost and alone in the wilderness.  

Therefore, he decided he could not leave the young boy alone to starve and there were many dangerous animals in these parts.  Thinking he would be a good companion and playmate for his own son he decided he would adopt him if the boy consented.  

After gently explaining to the boy his plan he asked if he would like to become part of his family and go home with him.  The boy agreed and told Great Eagle that his name was Little Frog.

The Cherokees lived in a fortified village patrolled with armed guards.  His father had told him about the fierce warriors of the Cherokee people and when Little Frog saw this he became very frightened.  On seeing the boy’s fear Great Eagle put his arm gently around his shoulder and spoke reassuringly to him.  Leading him to his lodge he introduced him to his wife who was to be his mother and then to his son, White Eagle, who would be his brother and playmate.

White Eagle was mighty pleased to have Little Frog, a boy of his own age, as his brother, companion and playmate.   Little Frog was also pleased and realized how lucky he had been when Great Eagle had found him. That night with the return of the hunting part bearing much game there was a great celebration with much singing, dancing and merrymaking.

The next morning, Great Eagle roused the boys from sleep as dawn was breaking.  He told them they were going to practice their skills with the bow and arrow and learn how to find game. He gave them both breakfast and both a bow and a quiver of arrows to match their stature and led them into the forest in search of game.  

Little Frog was feeling much happier and more secure.  His own father, mother and brother had been killed when hostile neighbors had attacked their village by surprise. Now, he was beginning to think of Great Eagle as his father and White Eagle as his brother and he liked it.  

As Great Eagle led them stealthily through the forest the two boys copied everything he did.  They heard the birds singing and then the snap of a twig as some animal stood on it.  Great Eagle crouched low and raised his hand for them to stop and they crouched low beside him.  Motioning them to stay he crept forward cautiously and quietly to investigate but soon returned to tell them that whatever snapped the twig was no longer there.

After traveling on through the forest Great Eagle decided it was time for rest and refreshment.  As they sat together on the trunk of a dead tree that lay across the forest floor he shared out food.

Little Frog asked White Eagle if he often went out into the forest with his father.  White Eagle replied, “Yes, my father is teaching me how to hunt and be a great warrior like him.”

Little frog was very impressed and once again realized how lucky he was that Great Eagle had adopted him.  Keeping up the conversation, White Eagle asked, “Are you missing your people and home village?  Do you miss your family?”

Little Frog replied, “No, after my family was killed I had no one to look after me.  No one in the village would help me and I had to work hard and beg for food.  One of the village braves took over my family wigwam and I was forced to sleep outside alone without shelter.  I miss my family but not my village.”

This made White Eagle realize just how lucky he was having a great warrior for a father, a mother to take care of him and give him food, shelter and love.  Now he had a brother and playmate as well and thought himself doubly lucky.

After a drink of cool water from a nearby spring Great Eagle led the boys onward signalling to them to be more stealthy.  The two boys followed, mimicking him carefully as they moved quietly forward.   Coming to a river they saw a beaver had built a dam and made its home there. 

Great Eagle motioned them to wait while he scouted around for the beaver.  He soon returned saying he could not see the beaver but it was time to make their way back home.  Along the way they would keep an eye open for turkeys and rabbits.  Both boys were disappointed they had not had a chance to try out their new bows and arrows but both trusted and obeyed Great Eagle unfailingly.

Coming to the edge of the forest, Great Eagle suddenly motioned for them to stop and pointed up along the trail where a cotton-tailed rabbit was sitting.  Seeing the rabbit White Eagle quickly raised his bow and fired off an arrow.  The aim was good and hit the rabbit.  

He was very pleased and excited and danced and sang, shouting at the top of his voice that he would take it for his mother to cook. His father calmed his son and looked at Little Frog and walked over to the rabbit.  He saw two arrows had hit it making it impossible to say whose had actually done the deed realizing Little Frog had fired simultaneously with his son.  Both boys began to claim the rabbit and began arguing over it.

Great Eagle found himself in a quandary.  He was always fair in his decisions and judgements and did not want it to look like he was taking sides especially as his own son was involved.  Therefore, after a pause for thought he said, 

“We can all  agree that both arrows were equally responsible as were those who fired them.”  

It is plain to see that you are both like stubborn elm trees and are both far better shots with a bow and arrow than I had realized!”

Saying no more Great Eagle picked up the rabbit and led them homewards.  Both boys followed on both happy with the decision he had made. That night in bed Little Frog turned over to face White Eagle and whispered, “What did he mean by saying we were like stubborn elms?”

White Eagle whispered back, “In the morning I will show you, but for now go to sleep.”

The next morning after breakfast Little Frog was still eager to know what Great Eagle had meant by calling them stubborn elms.  As he had promised the night before White Eagle led him out into the forest.  Every now and then he broke a branch from a tree and told Little Frog to copy what he did.  After breaking several branches from different trees they came to a young elm and White Eagle grasped a branch and tried to break it but he could not.  All he could do was bend it. Little Frog tried to help his friend but despite their combined strength they could not break it only bend it.

They had not noticed that Great Eagle had followed them and now he came up behind them and put his hand on their shoulders making them jump saying, 

“Now you can see for yourselves the reason I said you were like stubborn elms.  On your way you broke many trees.   In doing so you have observed how many trees can be broken and forced down.  Only the stubborn elm resists and can only be broken when several warriors lay their hands to it.

It is exactly the same with two proud boys who both believe they are in the right and place their equal strength against each.  Neither will give way just as the stubborn elm will not give way.

If I had applied my strength to the argument in favor of one or the other the loser may have bent to the earth and broken.  

When you believe yourself to be absolutely and with all honesty right, you can stand straight and tall as the stubborn elm tree.  

When you do things you do not truly believe in you leave the path of truth and wisdom and your enemies can break and defeat you.  Therefore, always remember the stubborn elm!”

© 26/08/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 26th, 2020 zteve t evans

18 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Great Eagle: The Lesson of the Stubborn Elm

  1. The setting being Appalachia, this is an old story, 1700’s. After the small groups that banded together to form the Cherokee nation, but before the tribe moved West along the Trail of Tears. Such an interesting folktale with a wonderful parenting lesson.

  2. Pingback: The Wisdom of Great Eagle: The Lesson of the Stubborn Elm — Under the influence! (Reblog) – The Midlode Mercury

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